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Afghanistan Duty

Frank Gazon (th)January 27, 2009

A German soldier told Deutsche Welle about the hardships and rewards of serving in Afghanistan. Germany has about 3,500 soldiers stationed the country, where attacks remain a common occurance.

Maurus Wrixel in front of a river in Afghanistan
Maurus Wrixel said he learned a lot about teamwork in AfghanistanImage: DW / Gazon

Seven years after the end of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan continues to be wracked by violence. Maurus Wrixel, a first lieutenant in the German military, recently shared his experience at the front lines of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan and restore order in the war-torn country.

Wrixel is part of the German military's "Provincial Reconstruction Team" in Feyzabad. Although the Taliban never had control over this northern part of the country, German soldiers have become primary targets for Islamist extremists in the region. In November 2008, four Bundeswehr soldiers were injured near Feyzabad when their patrol was attacked.

Wrixel, a 27-year-old first lieutenant, said he didn't shirk away from deployment in Afghanistan. He knew of the dangers when he signed up to serve in the German military.

"It was clear to me that I was going to do it because I'm a soldier and foreign assignments are part of that," said the blond young man from a small town near the western German city of Neuss.

Facing daily danger

Maurus Wrixel with an Afhgan soldier
German troops don't have much contact with AfghansImage: DW / Gazon

Despite months of preparation, Wrixel's deployment to Afghanistan in June of 2008 made him feel queasy.

"On one hand, you're excited because you can finally use what you've learned for so long. On the other hand, you wonder about all the things that could happen. That is the double-edged part," Wrixel said.

More than 30 of his fellow soldiers have already lost their lives in Afghanistan. It's not always easy to keep going out and doing the job, especially the day after an attack, he said.

"Sometimes you hear that something has happened in the evening in Kunduz and then the next day you have to go outside again," he said. "Or you're standing in the dark at a road crossing and people come up to you who you can't recognize despite night-vision devices and you just have to just hope that nothing happens."

Getting into the routine

German soldiers carrying a casket
More than 30 German soldiers have died in AfghanistanImage: AP

The Badakhshan Province has terrain that is often compared with a lunar landscape. There are brown, low mountain ranges with steep cliffs and the air seems to always be filled with dust.

Despite its rich mineral resources, the region is the poorest in Afghanistan. The average life expectancy is 43 years and 90 percent of the population is illiterate. It's an area which, compared to Europe, seems stuck in the Middle Ages.

The low level of development means there is plenty of work for German reconstruction team members, and they work hard. It helps make the time pass more quickly.

During their free time, soldiers have few entertainment options, as security concerns make it nearly impossible for them to leave the camp. There's a small "fitness tent" where they can work out. Wrixel also spends afternoons playing foosball or darts or drinking coffee. In the evening, they are allowed to drink a beer, but are limited by the so-called "two can rule" as they need to be ready to deploy at any time.

Despite all the risks and annoyances, Maurus Wrixel is positive, calling his time in Afghanistan a "super experience." The teamwork alone makes it worth it, he said.

"I'd go again, if I got another offer," he says.

But it's unlikely that he will get another chance. In a few months, his seven years of Bundeswehr service will come to an end.

Germany could become more involved

A US soldier, left, talks on a radio after a suicide attack in Kabul
Attacks remain a near-daily occurance in AfghanistanImage: AP

It's possible that more soldiers like Wrixel will be heading to Afghanistan in the future. Germany is among those European nations bracing for demands from the new US administration that they do more in Afghanistan. But Germany is reluctant to send more troops.

Chancellor Merkel has said that she would not accede to any request from President Barack Obama to send troops to southern Afghanistan, the scene of much of the heavy fighting against Taliban insurgents.

"Wherever Germany commits itself, a wholeness of military and civilian assistance should be visible," she said.

German forces, the third-biggest component in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), are based in safer northern Afghanistan. Other countries have borne the brunt of the fighting in the south.